Review: The Zero Theorem
This was originally reviewed as part of our Fantasia 2014 coverage.
PLOT: Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) – a chronically reclusive number cruncher – is assigned by his mysterious boss “Management” to work on “The Zero Theorem” an unprovable mathematical theory that has the unfortunate side effect of turning anyone who works on it insane.
REVIEW: Hit or miss, Terry Gilliam's movies are always interesting. While no one would ever mistake THE ZERO THEOREM for one of his better films, it's nonetheless an interesting ride, even if it is ultimately a misfire.
Many have compared this to BRAZIL, and sure enough the two movies do feel like companion pieces. This is Gilliam's return to dystopian sci-fi. While BRAZIL was very much a nightmare vision of the future by 1980's standards, THE ZERO THEOREM is equally influenced by our own tech-savvy, social media-driven culture. Like Jonathan Pryce's Sam Lowry, Waltz's Qohen Leth really is a man totally out of synch with his times, to the point that he can barely bring himself to leave his home/sanctuary and shirks from any kind of social contact. Yet, at the same time he's clearly a lost soul, with the stress of his life being so bad that he's lost all the hair on his body (Waltz not only shaved his head, but also his eyebrows), and spends all of his time waiting for a phone call which he believes will somehow give meaning to his life.
Waltz is pretty amazing here, with this being a stark departure from what North American audiences are used to seeing him play. Rather than a maniacal eccentric, he's quiet and repressed. While certainly eccentric in that he refers to himself as “we” rather than “I”, you feel for him throughout. Probably the most interesting scene for Waltz to play is his first walk to work, where Gilliam presents a nightmarish future where the entire cityscape is as overwhelming as a jam-packed Times Square, with ads so oppressive they literally follow you as you try to escape them. It's too bad that Gilliam set the majority of the film in Leth's sprawling home (an abandoned church), as the world he's created here is as striking as anything he's ever done. Leth's office looks like a nightmare version of the Google offices, while a party he's forced to attend is pretty on-the-nose satire with everyone glued to tablets and smart phones, while dancing to their own music.
It's too bad that more of the film wasn't devoted to satire, as when the actual plot starts, which involves Waltz becoming unraveled as he starts work on the theorem, the film becomes much less compelling. A story where Leth is manipulated by a seductress (the gorgeous Mélanie Thierry) quickly begins to dominate the proceedings, only to be abandoned as the film spirals towards a conclusion that feels a little perfunctory. A side plot, where Leth is assisted by the teen genius son of “Management” ( a big-star cameo I won't spoil), played by Lucas Hedges, is more effective, although even this feels a little under-cooked.
Again, Gilliam's movies often end with little to no resolution, which itself isn't so much a problem as he's one of the few directors that seems to have faith in the intelligence of his audience. We don't need to have anything spoon-fed to us, but the problem here is that the movie never really gets compelling enough to justify the ambiguous end. Thus, once the credits roll it's unlikely audiences will be thinking too much about what they've just seen.
It's too bad that THE ZERO THEOREM never really hits its stride as the elements are all there. Waltz is terrific, and the supporting cast is good (David Thewlis is particularly entertaining as Leth's unhinged supervisor). As usual for Gilliam it's a feast for the eyes, but the story itself is tough to get into, and very difficult to engage with emotionally. Still, Gilliam's misfires are often more interesting than other people's successes, so on that basis alone it's still worth checking out – especially if you can see it theatrically.
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